Compact field system keeps commanders plugged in without weighing them down

Small enough to fit in two rugged suitcases, communications setup connects to range of Defense and coalition networks.

Think of military command-and-control (C2) systems for contingency operations, and the mind conjures up visions of large, trailer-mounted satellite dishes or banks of routers and switches in a truck or Humvee that provide data and communication feeds for commanders in the field.

But at the Joint Communications Support Element -- a joint Defense Department organization headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida -- big technology comes in small packages, the unit's commander, Marine Col. Stephen Corcoran, told NextGov.

A two-person JCSE team can carry all the C2 gear needed to support the early stages of a deployment in two transit cases -- rugged suitcases -- small enough to be considered checked baggage by an airline, Corcoran said.

JCSE is a tactical unit that provides initial communications support for the early stages of a contingency operation as well as continuing support for top field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Corcoran said, though he declined to provide details due to security concerns.

The JCSE Initial Entry Package, essentially a C2 system in a box, provides commanders with Internet access to a range of secret and unclassified Defense data networks, Corcoran said. The system uses a small satellite dish about the size of a cookie sheet to connect to Defense networks via satellites.

The Initial Entry Package includes a Cisco router and a call manager system that supports video teleconferencing and connections for up to four secure telephones. JCSE cobbles together two Initial Entry Package systems into an Early Entry system, which supports larger headquarters with eight secure phones and provides access to coalition networks and the Top Secret Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.

JCSE uses its unique gear to support some unique missions, Corcoran said. The communications unit is part of the Norfolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command, which provides stateside troops from all the services to commanders around the world. Besides operating in the Middle East, JCSE teams deploy to Africa, Europe and Latin America, and teams can be ready to go on two hours' notice. They also take on missions at the direction of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, Corcoran explained.

The Joint Communications Support Element has approximately 1,100 active-duty and reserve and National Guard personnel from all four services, with the largest contingent -- 400 -- coming from the Air National Guard.

According to Corcoran, 20 percent of the JCSE troops are jump-qualified and most are seasoned and experienced senior noncommissioned officers. "This is an awesome organization," he said, adding the outfit is ready to go at a moment's notice to provide key communications support to top commanders anywhere around the globe.